Opportunity and mentorship: Our new PhD programme aiming to open-up academia for Black students

Cancer Research UK is proud to launch the Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme with the aim of helping develop the next generation of Black leaders in cancer research. We are doing this in partnership with Black in Cancer and the Windsor Fellowship – here we learn how this scheme is unique and why it could help bring genuine equality to the lab…

As part of this programme, where Black students will have mentoring support as well as other opportunities, we hope to foster a sense of belonging within academia.” Sigourney Bell

It seems as though access to higher education, particularly post graduate education, is far from equitable for those from Black and other ethnic minority communities.

There are many moments in the pipeline from A levels to completing a doctorate where students can be discouraged, disadvantaged or even discriminated against. A report conducted by Universities UK and the National Union of Students found that, at undergraduate level, just 57% of black students gained an upper second or first in their undergraduate degree, compared with 81% of white students. Black students were estimated to be one and a half times more likely to drop out than White or Asian students.

It seems clear this isn’t down to innate ability but is likely to be a reflection of the support structures around these students as they progress in their academic lives.

So, one way we are hoping to tackle this issue is to create these ringfenced opportunities for Black students to be able to pursue their academic dreams and fulfil their potential. As part of this programme, where Black students will have mentoring support as well as other opportunities, we hope to foster a sense of belonging within academia. These students should leave the programme knowing that there is a space for them to continue to achieve great things. We want these students to feel empowered to continue their academic journey, bolster the pipeline of Black academics and provide visibility for those who are interested in becoming cancer researchers.

There is a severe lack of Black professors within the UK – just 1%. I’d would love to see the programme, amongst others, help to increase this number, particularly within cancer research, something we’re already doing with our postdoctoral fellowship awards. I’m hoping the programme will be especially appealing to students because of the mentorship and support they will receive right from the beginning of the programme. Often those who have a great mentor to support their journey and to give them encouragement and advice end up with numerous opportunities purely because they know what is available and are encouraged to believe in themselves and their abilities. This, alongside being part of a cohort and having our Black in Cancer community to network and connect with will be of huge benefit to whichever students are accepted onto this brilliant programme.

The guidance they will receive on how to communicate their science and career options beyond their PhD is second to none. This programme is all I wish I’d had when I started my own PhD, but I’m excited to be able to help provide that space for others.

Sigourney is a graduate student in the Gilbertson Laboratory at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. Her research centres on developing novel models and therapeutics for paediatric brain tumours. She is also co-founder of Black in Cancer.

“There is no excuse for not engaging and doing something about an issue when the data shows that there is a problem.” Kevin Coutinho

I often get asked the question about why community-specific targeted initiatives are needed. The answer is multifactorial, but the need is clearly demonstrated by data.

People from Black backgrounds are underrepresented in academia. Black researchers make up less than 2% of UK bioscience postgrad researchers and CRUK’s diversity data shows that only 1% of applicants are Black. In contrast, the UK government estimated that the Black and Mixed Black proportion of the England and Wales population was 4.5% in 2018.

This representation gap, the difference between the communities that organisations serve and their leadership and organisational profile, is chronic and it is not improving fast enough. This has profound consequences on the morale of staff and communities within organisations, but more importantly poses questions about the legitimacy of organisations utilising public funds, either from government or the public.

When considering research specifically, understanding the distinct needs of different groups makes for better and more impactful research outcomes. A failure to appreciate this can lead to missed opportunities and have real-life negative consequences.

One of the positive features of working on equalities in Britain is the availability of data for many protected groups. In higher education, for example, the Higher Education Statistical Agency and Advance HE provide comprehensive data sets that allow historical progress to be tracked and monitored. Having this information allows for considered and proportionate responses to under-representation – so there is no excuse for not engaging and doing something about an issue when the data shows that there is a problem.

The positive action provisions of the Equality Act 2010 enable organisations to take ‘any action which is a proportionate means’ to address under-representation. The Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme is an example of a positive action programme. By combining financial support and skills development opportunities the programme will foster a more inclusive researcher community, leading to better science and research.

This is a true win-win – for the researchers, Cancer Research UK and society.

Kevin is the chair of Windsor Fellowship, www.windsor-fellowship.org, a national race equality charity working to promote educational attainment, active citizenship and career-focused employment.

Why Cancer Research UK are doing this

“We are seeing change in the sector to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in research but it isn’t coming fast enough, and it is our hope that schemes like this will speed this up. Dr Silvia Panico

We have established the Black Leaders in Cancer scholarship programme in an effort to help build a stronger and more inclusive cancer research community, who can bring a wider range of ideas and experiences to help understand cancer and unlock new ways to prevent, detect and treat it.

We know from our own efforts to understand and the work of others, such as the ‘broken pipeline’ report by Leading Routes, that there is a real drop-off of researchers from Black heritage backgrounds across the academic career pipeline, especially when transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate level. That’s why we’re taking positive action to change the current research landscape by offering a targeted PhD scholarship programme for students from Black heritage backgrounds.

We are seeing change in the sector to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in research but it isn’t coming fast enough, and it is our hope that schemes like this will speed this up. Supporting a diverse PhD student population is vital if we want to create tangible change, quickly.

Over the past year, we’ve partnered with In2scienceUK and Black in Cancer to mentor school children and undergraduate students from low socio-economic backgrounds and Black backgrounds to offer them opportunities to build a career in cancer research. This next step aims to tackle barriers to accessing and succeeding at PhD level and to empower the next generation of Black Leaders in cancer. This is the first of a five-year programme which we hope to expand over time.

Silvia is a Research Programme Manager at Cancer Research UK.

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